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Thelonious Monk: Thelonious Monk: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

Nenad Georgievski By

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The magnitude of archival material in jazz music is enormous and overflowing as basements and attics are full with unreleased materials, outtakes and alternate versions by various artists. It's such a medium where recordings used to be made in a matter of few days. Over the years, most or some of that material has found its place on numerous deluxe or anniversary reissues or exclusive content for various box sets. It's a very rare occurrence when a material that was specifically recorded to be released as an album or to accompany a film and then to be shelved and never see the light of the day. The usual and normal process of making an album unfolds in this way: it is written, recorded, mixed, post-production, presentation to the label, which will approve it, release it, market it and then musicians will go on tour. But not all records have the same faith. For various reasons many projects get shelved—they will get released at a wrong time, wrong marketing strategy, they don't sound that good as expected or aren't good enough.

So far, there were several unreleased jazz studio albums by jazz giants that had their albums shelved for various reasons but were eventually released decades after—John McLaughlin Mahavishnu Orchestra's The Lost Trident Sessions, The Bill Evans Trio: Some Other Time: The Lost Sessions From the Black Forest or Andrew Hill's Passing Ships Sun Ra's I Roam the Cosmos or Duke Ellington's recently published recordings with German producer Conny Plank, to name but a few. After more than 55 years since it was recorded, the pianist Thelonious Monk's soundtrack for film director Roger Vadim's Les liaisons dangereuses is finally seeing the light of the day.

During the '50s and some of the '60s of the previous century, French movie directors were turning to American jazz musicians to provide music for the movies that became known as "novelle vague" or the "the new wave." At the time, jazz was popular on both sides of the Atlantic and it gave filmmakers a different set of tools, textures, and colors to work with. It was an excellent choice to convey the varied emotional moods in a movie. An example is Duke Ellington's soundtrack for Anatomy of a Murder. Jazz was a particular fascination for Paris and its filmmakers during that period. It began with Louis Malle's and trumpeter Miles Davis' collaboration on 1957' movie Elevator to the Gallows and soon several French movie directors employed the services of Art Blakey, John Lewis and eventually pianist Thelonious Monk who all became film musicians.

The film "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (Dangerous Liaisons) was a French film that was based on the 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos but was set in present-day France. Many will remember the iconic version of the film decades later with actors John Malkovich and Glenn Close. The movie was a massive hit at the French box office but it received mixed reviews and it was severely censored wherever it was screened. The film score was mostly composed by Thelonious Monk with additional music provided by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers which is the only piece of music from the film published, The music that Thelonious Monk was in the vaults and was discovered several years ago in a collection of studio sessions that were part of the archives of Marcel Romano, a jazz aficionado and a manager of saxophonist Barney Wilen who actually instigated the Monk's employment to score the film. As the liner notes say, several years after his passing (2007) upon searching through his archives they managed to find the master tapes of the film score which were labeled only as "Thelonious Monk" including a batch of photographs. Several years ago Monk was also a part of another major discovery when a live recording was accidentally discovered in the vaults of Library of Congress while they were transferring the library's tape archive to digital. It was a rare live recording from a benefit concert in 1957 at Carnegie Hall while his band was briefly joined by saxophonist John Coltrane. And finally, on the year of the centennial of Monk's birth, the soundtrack is being released on Record Store Day.

At the time, when Monk was approached to do the soundtrack not only did he have a very busy schedule but he was facing with health issues and had close encounters with authorities that have left him bruised. He was a relatively obscure figure which public persona was of almost extreme and mystical inscrutability. Monk was a rising star who was creating brilliant music with an extremely busy schedule. He had just overcome an ordeal with the loss of the cabaret card to play in clubs, the deaths of his friend and former drummer Shadow Wilson and singer Billi Holliday put Monk in a somber mood, making it difficult to focus on the soundtrack for Les Liaisons Dangereuses. In fact, Romano had arranged for a short run at Club Saint-Germain and a concert at the Olympia, France, but those were canceled. Instead, Romano and director Roger Vadim decided to come to New York to supervise the recording. They arrived in May but soon discovered that pinning Monk down to a date was nearly impossible. Roger Vadim and Marcel Romano stayed in New York for several weeks in an effort to coax some music from Monk, but they could not even get him to sign a contract. As a precautionary measure, Romano commissioned pianist Duke Jordan to write some original music. If Thelonious fell through, at least they would have something.

The soundtrack was recorded in three days and Monk completed most of his part on the first night and Blakey's group finished the following two nights. Since it took a while for him to be persuaded to do the music after all the hand- wringing and stalling he actually didn't write anything new specifically for the film. He added French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen and simply recorded his usual repertoire: "Off Minor," "Let's Cool One," "Crepuscule with Nellie," "Pannonica," "Rhythm- a-ning," "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-Are," and "Epistrophy." One exception was the solo piano rendition of a gospel hymn "We'll Understand it Better, By and By." This track was used to underscore the theme of seduction and innocence when the film protagonists meet up in a church. Monk's music is loose, deep, urgent and full of abrupt and angular melodies. Monk's style was often dubbed as "nearly impossible to imitate" and it was for obvious reasons. Often dissonant, his music is ardently crafted to be so perfectly wrong. By extending the harmonic language of jazz Monk raised the bar on creativity and made sure that jazz solos and harmonies could never again lean on just a few standard licks. What is evident on these tracks is Monk's inimitable sense of melody and sophistication that have always defined him as a composer and arranger. He plays the piano with a quirkily spare mastery and typically, the melodies are enmeshed by discordant blares that might be wrong but they aren't. That is why each track feels like a strange and distinct universe.

The soundtrack comes with a second disc that offers a peek into the creative process behind Monk's extraordinary playing with a series of false starts, studio chatter and alternate takes. Listening in on the process just deepens your respect for his talent and daring. In the end, Romano flew back to Paris immediately after the session with the music secure in his suitcase. He and Vadim were happy with the results. Between Monk's contribution and the music provided by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Vadim had more than enough for an adequate soundtrack. The film had mixed reviews and even though only Art Blakey's music from the film was released in 1960 this music has been in the vaults ever since, until now. The reissue consists of plenty of excellent photographs from the sessions and several informative essays that throw a light on many issued concerning the soundtrack.

Thelonious Monk is one of the respected luminaries of the jazz world. His compositions, many of which are considered to be standards, not only contributed to the popularization of the genre and have moved jazz forward, but are an important and necessary step in the education of any jazz musician. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is more than an ordinary addition to the Monk catalog; it is an excellent collection that shines a new light on one of the most revered and mysterious artists in jazz.

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